Not guilty plea entered in Rifle murder case |

Not guilty plea entered in Rifle murder case

John Gardner
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Heath Johnston

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Heath Johnston pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and impaired mental condition in his first-degree murder case, Tuesday morning.

In a brief appearance, Johnston sat quietly as Public Defender Steve McCrohan entered the plea and explained the defense’s reasoning for the plea to the 9th Judicial District Court Judge Gail Nichols.

Nichols found probable cause to support the first-degree murder charge at a preliminary hearing on July 9.

Johnston, 20, is charged for allegedly killing his brother, Sam Johnston, by shooting him in the back of the head with a shotgun in December 2008, while Sam sat on a couch at his Rifle residence.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Johnston could face possible penalties of life in prison or the death penalty. Beeson has said previously that he has not yet decided to seek the death penalty in the case, but he has 60 days from the date which the plea was entered to decide.

Johnston is to undergo a mental evaluation and Nichols set an advisement hearing for Sept. 8. However, Nichols specified that the court would not require an evaluation before the advisement hearing, and that the advisement hearing would focus on the plea.

A trial date has yet to be set.

The Rifle man arrested last week for allegedly killing a DeBeque man by bludgeoning him with a sledge hammer handle was charged with first-degree murder, Tuesday in Mesa County Court.

According to Mesa County Court Clerk officials, Kenneth Earl Wright Jr., 43, was formally charged with first-degree murder – violent crime causing death, and assault with a deadly weapon – violent crime causing death.

Wright Jr. surrendered to Mesa County Sheriff’s deputies in the early morning hours of Monday, Aug. 3, after he called Garfield County dispatch and told them that he had just assaulted Steven Laverne Burdick, 52, at his DeBeque home earlier that night.

According to an arrest affidavit, Wright told officers that he “just snapped” after an argument between the two about alleged intimate relations between Wright’s wife and Burdick.

Wright told officers that he saw the sledge hammer handle beside the door to Burdick’s home, grabbed it, took one step and struck Burdick in the back of the head, according to the affidavit. Wright said also that he hit Burdick again when he tried to get up after the first hit.

A Mesa County Judge set bond on Aug. 4 at $1 million. Wright is due again in court in early September.

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